The latest tally of homeless individuals in South Sound is a reflection of the toll the economic recession is having on those living on the margins of society.
The Thurston County Homeless Census found 1,082 homeless people in the county, the most ever counted in nearly a decade of the annual count. The number is up from 1,016 homeless people counted last year and up from the 722 homeless individuals counted in 2008.
The steady growth in the number of people living without permanent shelter should serve as a wake-up call for South Sound elected officials. Five years ago, they promised to tackle the homeless issue head-on and reduce the number of homeless men, women and children. While some progress was recorded early, it’s as if the Homeless Consortium has stopped its quest. Our homeless population deserve better.
The economic recession, which has gripped this nation, this state and this community for two years, is a bit of a perfect storm for nonprofit organizations. During tough economic times when nonprofit organizations are most desperate for money to fund increased demands for services, strapped government entities cut back on their contributions to nonprofits. And because they feel the financial pinch, too, many individuals cut back on their charitable contributions.
The combination of increased demand and fewer financial resources can spell disaster for a community struggling to provide services to those in need.
But the Homeless Consortium has access to federal funds and needs to funnel those dollars into programs and services in this community to reduce the number of individuals living on the street.
Homeless surveys serve a couple of important purposes. First of all, they help lay bare the stereotype that all homeless individuals are middle-age men addicted to alcohol or drugs. That’s one face of homelessness, but there are many others.
A later count will tally the exact number of homeless children attending local schools, but previous tallies showed enough homeless kids to fill nearly 30 classrooms. That’s a wake-up call, too.
The one-day count, conducted Jan. 28, saw volunteers walking area woods to count people at makeshift campsites, people at social-service agencies and youths on streets.
“We’re just seeing a lot of indicators that the bulk of that growth has been families with children,” said Phil Owen of the Family Support Center, an Olympia nonprofit group that helps house homeless families.
Nearly 200 people who are staying with friends or relatives but don’t have a permanent address, were not included in this year’s count. “The total number is important because that shows the number of people using services,” said Anna Schlecht, housing program manager for the city of Olympia.
And those who tally the homeless annually admit that theirs is not an accurate count. While there are known homeless camps, it’s nearly impossible to find every person who is living in a car, under a freeway overpass or couch surfing.
What census takers did find was many more people living outdoors — in a tent or makeshift shelter or exposed to the elements. And many of the camps are larger with more than just a few individuals.
In 2005 local elected officials seemed to get it. They came together in the Home Consortium — a representative from the county and from each city — to create the 10-year plan.
The goal was to reduce the number of homeless individuals in Thurston County by 50 percent by 2015.
Yes, it was an ambitious goal to get homeless people off the streets, into transitional housing and, finally, into permanent dwellings. The housing element was accompanied by a strong program to ensure that the homeless have the mental health, substance abuse and life skills assistance they need to get back on their feet.
Make no mistake, some progress has been made. In 2007, Catholic Community Services and its partners at the federal, state and local level opened the Drexel House, a $5 million homeless shelter and housing project on Devoe Street in Olympia. About the same time Behavioral Health Services opened a $3 million, 34-apartment complex in Tumwater to house severely mentally ill homeless individuals.
But since 2007, little progress has been made. It’s time for the members of the Home Consortium to get off their behinds, dust off the 10-year plan and get serious about curbing homelessness in this community. The mounting number of homeless individuals is an affirmation that the 10-year plan isn’t working.